Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Invention of Black and White

In the last couple days, I read/skimmed through a book called, Stony the Road We Trod. It's going on 25 years old, but it seems to have been a watershed work of sorts in African-American biblical interpretation. The project seems to be to disentangle the Eurocentric elements of biblical studies to find what African-American interpretation might look like.

I found the book very helpful. Maybe I'll post some thoughts later. Many of the critiques are critiques I've made. I have questions about other sections. Of course biblical studies itself has changed significantly in the last twenty years.

The single most striking thing I read was actually a quote from Cornel West's, Prophetic Fragments. West mentions that the first instance of dividing up race in terms of color and physical features was in 1684, in a work by the Frenchman François Bernier. It is not a stretch to suggest that the slave trade was a formative factor in his formulation.

This is an incredibly significant paradigm shift. Humanity has always been a herd animal. We are tribal by nature, most often identifying ourselves in terms of the groups to which we belong. You see it in Sudan. You see it in Iraq between the Shiites and Sunnis. You see it in the chest beating of Republicans and Democrats.

So race has always been a key element of human culture. But it was not about color. It was whether you were an Israelite or Greek or Ethiopian or Egyptian or Babylonian or Scythian. You might talk about the Cushites as a race, but not about the "blacks."

In the same way, the "whites" didn't come to the New World. The Spanish did. The French did. The English did. The Dutch did.

In that sense, the slave trade created the "black race." Before then, you had tribes in Africa, lots of them. You had Ashanti and Malinke, Ibo and Yoruba, Kissi and Hausa. The lines of the "nations" in Africa today were not drawn by Africans, but by the European nations that colonized them. However, as slaves, their captors grouped them all together as one group, the "black race."

Once the black race was created, it is natural that the category of "white" would be invented as well. In America especially, as the ethnic origins of the European settlers blurred and blended into each other, "white" would unify English, Dutch, Scottish, German, etc. over and against slave and "Indian." A German would invent "Caucasian" in 1785.

The basic point is clear. "White" is a construct. It only exists in our minds. There is no white race.


Susan Moore said...

Children are herd beings. It seems we were not created to be fulfilled existing in isolation from other people. We were created to be fulfilled as we do the work of God together (John 6:29), and function as a body (1 Cor. 12:12).
And a bride waits for her husband.
In the meantime, the horns and teeth that God has given us to protect and prosper our one body is the sword of the Spirit; the word of God (Eph. 6:17).

Jeff Brady said...

After just coming through John Drury's American Christianity elective, my eyes were opened to lots of things. I've long disapproved of "black" and "white" designations. If we're talking about (or filling out a form) ethnicity then "white" is not an ethnicity. I'm German American.

But these days lots of our original cultural heritages have died. My grandpa was fluent in German as a third generation American! I thought he was crazy when he said his great-grandpa moved from NYC to become a farmer in Indiana because he was sick of being called "black"... but he was "white". Boy was I confused.

Then John literally schools us this week. Hearing about (and reading from) this book in last few days opened my eyes even more.
"How the Irish Became White".

Hopefully the invention of Black of White can get tossed in the near future, because I see more harm than good has come from it. Great post, Dr. Schenck.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the reference, Jeff. I also saw a book called "How the Jews Became White Folk," or something like that. I'm jealous of you getting to take John. John knows the "thick descriptions" of history. Most church history teachers in our circles really only know history on a surface level. They don't see the deep cultural paradigm shifts like John does.

Martin LaBar said...

Interesting about "white" being a recent development. Thanks.